“5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My SAAS”, with Joe Sexton and Mitch Russo

Mitch Russo
Nov 7, 2019 · 19 min read

Is it a Market that can be disrupted with superior technology that is easy to use? No one wants to implement products that take 6 months with heavy consulting. That’s the old way and typically what the legacy vendors have implemented over the years. It prevents agility which is a key business driver today.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Sexton, former Executive sales leader for CA, Mercury, McAfee and AppDynamics: Board of Director for CrowdStrike, SnapRoute and BrainBox Intelligent Marketing; Executive Advisory Board PagerDuty and Executive Advisor to the CEO for DecisionLink

I started out as a computer sales rep for Triad Systems fresh out of college selling computers to auto parts stores in Eastern Kentucky. I was fortunate in that they had a great six month training program before you could actually begin selling. My role involved selling and installing the solution, which automated everything from the point of sale, inventory management and the financials for the owners of the stores. This was back in the mid-eighties when computers for small business owners was still a relatively new concept. It was a great learning experience and great company to work for as a first post college job.

Regarding DecisionLink, I’ve been a customer and follower of their journey since we brought them into McAfee over seven years ago. I’ve always believed selling Value versus technology has been a key to my success. No one buys technology for technologies’ sake, rather they buy technology to solve business problems that impact business outcomes that create tremendous Value. The challenge has been creating ROIs to reflect this has required expertise and resources that are manual and costly to scale. That is until today’s DecisionLink solution. I believe today’s DecisionLink enables sales reps to have an easy to use, repeatable solution to create their own value proposals that start with a Value Hypothesis for the prospect, proving that Hypothesis with the prospect, then tracking the delivery of that Value so the customer sees what Value was received. This automation and the ease of use for the sales reps to put the Value selling into their hands I believe is a break through and is the missing link for organizations to scale their sales results in a very meaningful way.

My first job selling computers to auto parts dealers in Eastern Kentucky was for a territory where the previous three sales reps had been fired for poor performance. It was a territory no one wanted but I looked at it as an opportunity for great upside since the expectations were low. I never considered giving up but considered it a blessing to have such a great opportunity. I’ve always been a big proponent of Visualization and Positive Thinking. I dropped out of college for over four years after my sophomore year, doing various sales jobs for commission only, then came back and completed my final two years of college in a year. The reason was getting a job with a salary PLUS commission seemed like a great deal. Paying for school myself and growing up in Eastern Kentucky where career choices were working in coal mines and steel mills gave me an appreciation for what the Technology Industry could mean for my future opportunities. Once I got a taste for how technology could change a business and the outcomes it produced, I was hooked and never considered giving up.

Things are going great today. 2019 has been a memorable year with two of my companies, CrowdStrike and PagerDuty, doing IPOs. This was after the AppDynamics acquisition by Cisco in 2017, where I was the President of Worldwide Field Operations. While grit and resilience has been part of my success, I believe creating environments for Winning Cultures has been the biggest factor in my success. Everyone loves to Win, employees, customers and investors. Winning cultures attract all three.

Early in my career I was with another sales rep on a call shadowing him. We were meeting with a CIO and the other sales rep was hammering him with his pitch. The poor CIO couldn’t get a word in. After about 25 minutes of this in what was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting, the CIO leans back in his chair, takes off his glasses and puts them on his desk. He was an older fellow and clearly had been through many meetings. He said with a thick Southern drawl, “Son, have you ever sold used cars?” “No, but why do you ask that?” replied the sales rep. “Because you’d be good at that” said the CIO. Lesson learned, you are born with two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion. Sales is about being a good listener way more than being a good talker.

Another story:

Maybe not so funny but very helpful early in my career. It was during a Quarter end crunch when all the reps depended on the admins to send crucial documents overnight. I was walking down the hall to have the office manager overnight a key document for a Quarter end deal when I witnessed a rep telling her to drop everything she was doing and overnight his document. She told him she had a stack she was working through and would try to get to his. After he walked away I watched her take his document and put it at the bottom of her stack. I then walked up and said I can see you are swamped but it would mean a lot if you could possibly get my document overnighted before you leave today. If not I totally understood. She took it and said she would immediately send it before any others. I said I appreciated it and would try and help her when she needed it in the future. A very simple lesson. Treat others as you would want to be treated no matter the role. And if you find yourself treating others in a way you wouldn’t like to be treated, stop.

Another lesson involved a group of admins who were constantly going at each other, yet the leader in the office refused to get involved hoping it would go away. Soon, all five admins showed up in his office saying they collectively quit and were walking out the door. When he asked why, they said they didn’t like working with each other but liked working for him even less. He wouldn’t get involved and the environment was miserable as a result. The lesson was address problems early while they are small to avoid having to try and fix them when they are too big to fix.

As I reflect on the fledgling startups I was involved in that moved to multi-billion-dollar valuations; or the three mid-sized companies that experienced hypergrowth — CA, as mentioned, from $163m to $4B; Mercury from $300m to $1B and acquired by HP for $4.5B; McAfee from $1.2B to $2.5B and was acquired by Intel for $7.7B, I often wonder, what the common thread was? And no, it wasn’t me.

The common thread was that each company had a strong value proposition, and we sold on value versus technology features and functions. While it sounds simple enough, the fact is, customers don’t buy technology for technology sake. They buy based on value or the problem it solves. Generally, they’re trying to improve speed, efficiency, agility, transparency, risk and/or create a competitive advantage. Ultimately those outcomes help move the needle on the KPI’s they really seek, the ones their bonus’ are tied to, i.e. earnings per share growth, EBITDA improvement, more liquidity, or general return on invested capital. So, the best salespeople clarify their value in those terms instead of how cool the on/off switch is. The real ROI of a solution is like music to the ears of the business decision maker. So, after a string of successes and these observations, when I’m asked: “what’s the next big thing, Joe?” — my answer is “value” and the company to deliver it is — DecisionLink.

There are a few things a world class sales rep and company must do to win big in their Market. First, they must start conversations with prospects early and “create” opportunities versus “reacting” to them. If you are “reacting” you are usually too late, and your only means to differentiate is on price, i.e. discounting. In order to “start early” and avoid big discounts, it’s important to research your customer by understanding their business and shareholder expectations. Understanding those corporate objectives, their business strategies to achieve those objectives, and specifically understanding the initiatives that drive those strategies; as well as their ability to execute on those initiatives will help you determine what the obstacles are standing in their way of success, and how your solution removes those obstacles or accelerates their results, i.e. your “value position”. At AppDynamics, we mapped that out in a “Value Pyramid”. At DecisionLink it’s called a “Value Hypothesis”, at other companies it’s called a “Value Framework”. Whatever it’s called, prospects appreciate your efforts in developing the hypothesis, and engage in meaningful conversations with you to vet and refine it.

The difference between these approaches and DecisionLink, is scale. That is, DecisionLink provides a rich knowledge base and set of algorithms collected over the last eight years, to help reps and value teams automate the building of a value statement.

At AppDynamics, the document we produced was a Business Value Assessment with help of Business Value Consultants. The final document gathered data from the proof of value (we didn’t believe people were interested in trying to “prove a concept” we believed it was all about proving value), along with key, usable quotes from the prospect’s key potential users that compared their current state against the solution’s capabilities to generate both incremental hard dollar and soft dollar savings. This made our proposal defensible versus a sales-created spreadsheet proposal. Spreadsheet proposals draw in procurement folks who typically like to “break down” the spreadsheet into elements and discredit it a piece at a time in order to drive the conversation to price. Neat trick.

We overcame the feature/function/discounting dilemma with value, the challenge we faced at AppDynamics was scale. How would we scale the value function given our finite number of value resources, to so many salespeople? Especially when our goal was to maximize customer-face time for salespeople.

DecisionLink solves this question of “value at scale”, with their ValueCloud®. Sales reps can quickly and easily self-serve through the ValueCloud® to create their own business value materials, so the highly skilled business value consultants can be leveraged on the biggest, most complex deals. With DecisionLink’s ValueCloud®, reps can operate in familiar surroundings, salesforce.com, and “find a deal and sell a deal” using value on the go.

All this said, world class companies want far more than just deals. They want Customers for Life. And in order to deliver that, value and value expectations must be managed across the customer lifecycle, and not just at deal time. In today’s world, a key metric many executives carry is “Net Retention Dollars” or NRD. This makes managing customer value and treating that data like a strategic asset even more important. However, just retaining customers isn’t all that matters, especially from a margin perspective. Increasing “share of wallet” or customer penetration, through cross-selling and up-selling into their base is critical. Simply put, successful customers buy more and tell others to do the same, and therefore must be managed beyond the first sale. At AppDynamics, we called that “Business Value Realized” (BVR). Again, another very manual and tedious task that isn’t scalable just by adding people.

DecisionLink’s ValueCloud® is the world’s first customer value management system, and helps companies manage and scale value conversations from initial sales call, through to contract renewal, and provides companies the ability to calculate and report on value achievement in a scalable way, through their SaaS-based ValueCloud®.

If you want to go-to-market with a value approach versus price approach, and if you want to manage customers for life, I highly encourage you to look at the “next big thing” — the DecisionLink ValueCloud®. Find out why DocuSign, VMWare, CrowdStrike, ServiceNow and many are leveraging DecisionLink to engage a prospect, gain customers and then keep them for life and even turn them into promoters.

DecisionLink has a great team of folks. They have incredibly impressive customers as I’ve mentioned. But there have been others trying to address this problem. One of DecisionLink’s founders is John Porter and frankly he’s a secret weapon. He won’t be a secret for long! Brilliant people at some of the world’s best companies have recognized his talent. The companies that invest in value with DecisionLink are getting the guy and his team that broke the code on an incredibly difficult set of challenges.”

After 8 years of building out this SaaS based ValueCloud® even your busy sales reps can use, I’m firmly convinced full customer value management is the next big thing, and DecisionLink delivers on it!

That question is easy to answer but difficult to do. But doing it well makes all the difference. Hire extremely well then focus on keeping the talent once they come to work for you. I believe this is more than 50% of any successful leader’s role and doing it well lessens the burden of you having to try and do more than you are capable of from a capacity perspective.

Very simply hire top talent and retain them after they join your team. Whether they work for you, with you or you work for them, everyone has to be in the boat when it comes to getting the top talent in the company. Jim Collins said it best in his book “Good to Great”. Get the right people on the bus and the bus will go to great places.

Arnie Mazur of Computer Associates and gave me my first big break.

I worked for Computer Associates for 11 years, starting when they were a small software company doing $167 million and exiting when they were a $4 Billion behemoth. I learned a tremendous amount during those 11 years. I started as a sales rep in Atlanta selling financial systems, programs such as General Ledger, Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivables. The big money programs were sold on IBM mainframes with each program costing in excess of $100k and General Ledger starting at $250k, the next most desirable platform was IBM System 36 and 38s based on the number of companies that used them in their back office. After that came the Digital Corporation, which is no longer in business having been acquired by Hewlett Packard. My territory consisted of companies that had Data General (another company no longer around having been acquired by EMC) servers. To give some perspective, a mainframe territory would be Atlanta, a system 36/38 territory would be half the state of Georgia, the Digital territory would be the state of Georgia. My Data General territory was 13 states! Yes, finding a company that used that server for their back-office system was indeed half the battle. But find them I did. I did so well I was promoted and transferred to Hollywood, Florida to open a branch office with two sales reps and in essence I was a player coach. We did extremely well, out selling the rest of the Southeast Region combined. My next step was to become a Vice President and I wanted this more than anything. But sometimes it takes more than results to get what you want. In my case when the VP spot came open, the decision was made to promote a colleague who already lived in Atlanta. While my results were better, they weren’t enough to overcome the convenience of location. But as fate would have it, he decided to make a career move soon after and left to join Oracle. Now one thing we did a lot of when I was at CA was acquire other companies and we bought 56 during my 11 years. As the VP was deciding to leave, we acquired a sizable software company Cullinet. They had a large Manufacturing software business that ran on mainframes, which was merged into our business software business unit. Both of their senior leaders were put over our business unit, dividing the country in half. Rich Chiarello was responsible for the Eastern half of the US, so I immediately began thinking how can I get to Rich, tell him about my track record and that I was the candidate most qualified to take over the Southeast as the Regional VP? But as soon as Rich was named the Senior VP over the East, he named one of his managers from Cullinet, who lived in South Carolina to become the new VP for the Southeast. Wait a minute! Without even getting a chance to put my hat in the ring, I get passed over. And with a guy who also didn’t live in Atlanta! But as I look back, from Rich’s viewpoint I’m sure it made sense. His guy, who he knew and who knew how he liked things done. Betting on what you know. Fair? Maybe not, but again with hindsight I understood the decision. But then fate weighed in. Or maybe luck. But as I like to say, luck is when hard work and preparation meets opportunity. Whichever it was, Rich’s choice resigned. He didn’t want to move, work for CA or maybe both. From my perspective I didn’t care. Strike two had happened and I wasn’t going to wait on strike three. I wanted the role and it was time to go get it.

Now was the time for action and after thinking about it, there was but one thing to do. What it came down to was taking my own advice when trying to close a big, important sale. Call high and go after the decision maker. And from what I knew the ultimate decision maker was not Rich. He didn’t know me ; he was new to the company and had just had his guy tell him no thanks. I didn’t think he would be in any mood to hear from some branch manager in Florida. The decision maker in my mind was Arnie Mazur, who ran worldwide sales and was based in Corporate Headquarters in Garden City, New York. A lawyer by training, I knew him to be incredibly smart, no nonsense and did not suffer fools. Of course, this was all based-on knowledge gathered from afar because I had never formally met Arnie and I’m pretty sure to this day he had no clue who I was at that time. But that was about to change. While I knew my plan could potentially end up with me unemployed, it would not be because I spent the company’s money on my ambition. I spent my personal money on a plane ticket, rental car and any food I ate, although I’m pretty sure I was too nervous to eat that day. I caught the first flight out to La Guardia, drove straight out to Headquarters. After arriving that morning, I marched straight up to Arnie’s office and up to his assistant’s desk Christine Moore. Christine looked up and said, “Can I help you?” A horrible thought instantly occurred to me. Was Arnie even in town? I was so focused on seeing him, I had not even thought about checking. “I’m here to see Arnie Mazur”, I said. “Do you have an appointment?”, asked Christine. “No, but I’m the Branch Manager from Florida and I’d like you to tell Arnie his next VP for the Southeast for Business Systems is here to see him.” “He’s not going to see you without an appointment” she said, “he’s a very busy man.” “Well you can tell him I’m not leaving until I see him, and I know he’s at some point got to use the restroom”, I said. She grinned and said, “He’s got his own bathroom in his office. but hang on and I’ll check to see if he’s available.” As she got up to leave, I finally exhaled as I realized at least he was in the office. By the way, I’ve always wanted my own bathroom in my office since that day. But I digress. She came right back out and said, “I’m sorry but Arnie is booked up all day and can’t see you.” I said, “No problem, I can wait until he’s done, I’ve flown up here on my own money and I’m not leaving until I see him. I’ll just wait right over here out of the way.” And so, I sat. And I sat. And I sat. All day. Finally, six o’clock came and Christine’s phone rang. “Yes, he’s still here and said he’s not leaving until he sees you,” she said. “He says he’s a branch manager from Florida. He also says he’s your next VP of the Southeast,” she said with a slight grin. She hung up the phone, looked up and said, “He said you have 15 minutes.” I bounded up and through his door to a seat right in front of his desk. I purposely sat on the very edge of the chair, leaned forward and for the next 30 minutes proceeded to passionately make my case based on facts and my track record why I was the only choice that made sense to be his next VP of the Southeast. I made my case with passion, enthusiasm and a conviction that came from my core. Finally, Arnie laughed. I was flabbergasted. I had just given the pitch of my life and all he could do was laugh! I said, “Excuse me but what’s so funny?” “Hold on a second,” he said. He picked up the phone dialed a few numbers and said into the phone, “Rich get in here.” In walked Rich with a puzzled look on his face when he saw me. Arnie said, “Rich, I’d like to introduce you to your new Southeast VP for Business Systems, Joe Sexton. Joe lives in Florida; assures me he will move immediately and has quite the track record. I really think he’ll do great.” We exchanged a few pleasantries, Arnie wished me good luck and Rich and I left his office. As soon as we stepped out of his office, Rich turned and looked me directly in the eye and said, “Look, I don’t appreciate what just happened in there. So, let me make you a promise. The first Month, not Quarter, you miss your Quota, I’m firing you! Is that clear?” “Crystal,” I said. Not only did I not miss a Month, I went on to become VP of the Year and Rich’s top guy. He and I became close as I earned his respect. Arnie became my mentor and is still to this day someone I learned a tremendous amount from and have the utmost respect for. In fact, he was the person who offered me a Senior VP position when I would later become the youngest Sr. VP in CA’s history.

We don’t share exact number but here’s a sense. DecisionLink’s ValueCloud® has been commercially available almost four years, has over two dozen customer companies and is approaching 10,000 users. We doubled in the past year, trajectory is increasing and are working with several prospects with over 10K users each. We are profitable, are almost 85:15 in subscription to services ratio and have lost only one customer since introducing ValueCloud®.

DecisionLink is using SaaS delivered from the cloud through the company’s own web interface or through Salesforce. DecisionLink charges $50-$85 per user per month based on role and volume, have a minimum subscription of 100 users and a modest fee for on-boarding program. The CRM approach makes the most sense.

I look for 3 things for a company to be successful in the SaaS space.

  • First, is the Total Addressable Market large or can it become large (>$5B)?
  • Secondly, is it a Market that can be disrupted with superior technology that is easy to use? No one wants to implement products that take 6 months with heavy consulting. That’s the old way and typically what the legacy vendors have implemented over the years. It prevents agility which is a key business driver today.
  • And last is the CEO business savvy versus just tech savvy? And if not is he willing to learn. I’ve met so many CEOs in the Silicon Valley who are brilliant technologists but can’t tell their story of what business problems their solutions solve in a way most people can understand. 5 stories that did all 3 are AppDynamics, PagerDuty, CrowdStrike, Zoom and Slack. All are successful outcomes that did all three of these well and I’ll be happy to expand on this during the interview.

I really believe DecisionLink can become THE sales methodology that will enable any sales person become more successful. Starting with Value, identifying the Value for what you are selling, then delivering that Value to your customer will create a relationship that will become long term in nature and will lead to more success for the customer, the sales person and their company and the investors in that sales person’s company. I believe it is the Missing Link that will finally close the gap between what sales people want to sell and what prospects want to buy- great business outcomes from hard solving problems via solutions and services at a fair price.



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DecisionLink Customer Value Management Video on YouTube:


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About the author:

Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via mitch@mitchrusso.com

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Pop Culture, Business, Tech, Wellness, & Social Impact

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Mitch Russo

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Author of The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies & Power Tribes — How Certification Can Explode Your Business

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.